Taliban forces seize presidential palace in Kabul as US evacuates embassy
Kabul, Afghanistan - Taliban forces gave a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul on Sunday after taking control of the Afghan capital.
Surrounded by gunmen, leaders of the group addressed journalists in the huge, highly secured compound in the center of Kabul that contains the official residence of the president, the national security adviser, and other authorities.
The footage came just hours after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country before taking to social media to say that numerous countrymen would have been killed and the city destroyed if he had stayed.
"I was faced with a difficult choice today: wait to face armed Taliban entering the Presidential Palace or exit the country," Ghani wrote in a statement posted to Facebook.
"I chose to exit so I could prevent this bloodshed."
Taliban forces already in control of provincial capitals
Taliban forces surrounding Kabul earlier said they entered the Afghan capital to prevent looting in areas abandoned by security forces.
The insurgent group's spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, said that residents and foreign workers would not be harmed. "We assure all embassies, diplomatic centers, NGOs, and accommodations of foreign nationals in Kabul that they will not face any danger."
Kabul was the last remaining major city in Afghanistan held by the country's government after Taliban militants captured the key eastern city of Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province, earlier on Sunday.
The militant Islamist group had captured almost all of the country's provincial capitals in the past week and a half, with many falling to Taliban forces without a fight.
After capturing Jalalabad in the east of the country, Taliban fighters gathered at the gates of the capital Kabul. However, they were initially ordered not to advance into the city.
Western governments evacuate their embassies
The UN Security Council will hold an urgent meeting on the situation on Monday.
Western governments including the United States, Germany, the Czech Republic, and France are meanwhile rushing to evacuate staff from their embassies and calling on their citizens to leave as soon as possible.
The safe operation of the airport was previously considered a prerequisite – along with medical care – for embassies and international missions to remain in the country.
However, as the Taliban advanced, the US decided to move its personnel from the embassy compound to a location at the Kabul airport. The US completed the embassy evacuation late Sunday.
Washington said late Sunday it was boosting its troops by 1,000 in a bid to secure Kabul's airport for the safe departure of US allied personnel. This means the US will have a total of 6,000 troops in Afghanistan.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the safety of French and the local Afghan forces was an "absolute priority." In recent weeks, France has been one of the few countries still offering protection to vulnerable people on the ground.
Following the capture of Jalalabad, the Taliban was in control of at least 25 provincial capitals of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. All of these cities were captured within 10 days.
Afghan capital becomes a ghost town
Fears of a military invasion had led to chaotic scenes in the capital, as many people tried to withdraw their savings, buy food, and get home to their families.
Residents in Kabul later reported the city became a ghost town with shops and markets closed once Afghan government officials announced their intention to hand over power to the Taliban.
"Not one person is on the street," said Farsad Husseini, who lives in the center of the city, saying virtually all citizens had barricaded themselves at home awaiting the arrival of Taliban forces.
Following reports of Taliban attacks on civilians, targeted killings, and other serious human rights abuses during the groups advances, world leaders and activists have been voicing their concerns for Afghan citizens.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has called on the Taliban to end its violence and protect human rights, while Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai said she was worried about the country's women, minorities, and fellow activists.
Yousafzai, who herself survived a Taliban assassination attempt, said "global, regional and local powers must call for an immediate ceasefire, provide urgent humanitarian aid and protect refugees and civilians."
Cover photo: IMAGO / UPI Photo